Impressions from FotoFest

- - Art, Portfolio

by Jonathan Blaustein

My feature articles run long. Have you noticed? If it’s not a book review, you can count on me to get verbose and intricate. Conversely, I also love to rebel. So let this be the first brief feature piece, a quick recap of my time at FotoFest (Session 3) this past March.

I suppose I could start with my objectives: to meet with and show work to international curators, and also to get to know some of the curators and collectors in the Houston scene. Unlike my previous visits to Review Santa Fe, this time I was not out to make friends. Just to take care of business. (And I assumed I’d get to hang out with a few interesting photographers as well.)

The trip was a breeze, less than 2 hours on a plane from ABQ direct to Houston Hobby, the Southwest Airlines hub. It’s far closer to downtown than George Bush/IAH, and very efficient, so I’d recommend you use it if you can. It’s an easy-but-not-cheap cab trip to the Downtown Doubletree, where the FotoFest is held. I was told by some colleagues that it’s best to stay there, if possible, and I’d concur.

Upon arrival, I spotted Kurt Tong and Dana Popa in the lobby, both in from London, departing from Session 2. After a quick hello to them, I looked down, and my suitcase…was…gone. Rather than freaking out, like I might have in the past, I sprinted outside and rummaged through the back of the first cab I saw. There is was. So let that be a FotoFest lesson for you: keep your eyes on your business.

How can I condense four solid days of 24 meetings, both official and otherwise? It was exactly what I was hoping for, and perfectly run. Efficient, friendly people in charge, with co-chairs Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss offering warm greetings at the first evening’s cocktail party. These people have it down. Clocks are set to FotoFest time, so you always know when your next review will run. Extra reviews are called out, and despite the first-come-first serve notion, I never saw it be anything but smooth.

The reviewers hailed from all over the world, and so did the photographers. (As an example, I met with reviewers from England, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Korea & Argentina.) I was impressed to walk by tables of people and not hear English. FotoFest is also not juried, so the quality of the work ranged pretty heavily. I saw some things that were amateur, to be blunt, but so what? Those people were there for their own reasons, and seemed to be having fun.

Houston is a cool place, too. That’s one thing that caught me off guard. Here in New Mexico, we often have a bad opinion of Texans, though we tend to see more folks from around the Dallas area anyway. But Houston people were down-to-Earth, and the place had a distinctly Southern Vibe. Not a lot of TX accents either, which seemed strange.

Downtown, where FotoFest is located, is a big, wealthy grid. Buildings are like mini-cities, with built-in food courts, malls, and air conditioned skyways between them. I totally want to go back and see how many city-blocks I could cover by abusing those things. (Sorry, off-topic.)

I said I’d be brief, right? I was able to meet some wonderful people from the Houston museum, non-profit gallery, and collector scene. Kind, interesting professionals who work with one another to keep their community lively. Judging from the water features running along the gleaming Light rail tracks, and the ridiculous number of super-extra-double-shiny-skyscrapers, it’s not hard to figure out that there’s a lot of “funding” in this town.

From what I saw, Houston supports the arts, and the arts are happy in Houston. I was able to visit the Menil collection, which is free, and brilliant, but not the MFAH or the Houston Center for Photography. Both are thriving institutions, and it seems like there’s a long list of other museums in town too. (According to the plaque in the airport, at least.) I went on a brief gallery bus-tour via FotoFest, but didn’t see enough to get a sense that the galleries are equally hopping.

I’m not going to name drop my reviewers this time, but I will say that the people I met were professional, smart, honest and curious. (No attitude.) Very few of them had seen the portfolio I had with me, despite the fact that it has been around for a few years. My new work, debuting this week, wasn’t quite ready, so I didn’t bring it. I purposely wiped it off the Ipad, so I wouldn’t cave to pressure and show un-finished work. Plus, the impending project seemed to offer me a great reason/chance to follow up.

I think I got a lot of value out of the FotoFest experience, even though it does cost a fair amount. Lots and lots of conversations with people from other places. New connections, new opportunities, and untaxed beer. Highlights included an evening stroll through the streets with a few friends, and mugs of cold cheap Modelo Especial at an outdoor restaurant on a balmy night. And, of course, the Monday evening party, hosted by HCP at Cadillac Bar, a Texas Honkey-tonk, replete with a dancing Mexican Elvis not-quite-impersonator-house band.

Who do I think would benefit from going to the biennial event? To start, anyone who can afford it as a cost-of-doing-business. I don’t mean to harp on the expense, but we do have a broad audience here at APE. I don’t think FotoFest is realistic for most student photographers.

Beyond that, photographers who have a solid project and want to get it front of a bevy of global decision-makers, all in a brief period of time. Or perhaps others who don’t have a strong community, and want to get insightful feedback on some less- developed-work. I wouldn’t do that myself, I don’t think, but could see that being worthwhile for some. Given the well-oiled grind of a four-day-event, I’d definitely suggest that people be on top of their game

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 7 Comments On This Article.

  1. Nice write-up! I attended during Session I this year and found your experience and impressions to largely mirror mine. Have you found any other similar event that gives you more bang for your buck, especially with respect to feedback by key (worldwide) decision-makers and/or opportunities for publishing/exhibition?

  2. Glad you enjoyed our little town called Houston. Fotofest is a great organization and it does take a visit to understand how it all works. It’s distributed amongst many many venues and it takes a few days to get the hang of it.

  3. Thank you Jonathan! It is great to that you enjoyed your time at the Meeting Place. We take our mission seriously to serve the artists and reviewers as best we can. We look forward to seeing you again.

    Erik – Jonathan was correct, the FotoFest Meeting Place IS NOT juried. It is open to all. There is a process to register, implemented only because the demand for spaces exceeds the availability. If we have more artists than spaces (which has been the case every year), we conduct a lottery from the list of registrations received by the deadline. Registration remains open after the deadline, and artists are added to a waiting list. Occasionally spots become available (are added or artists drop out) and they are filled from the waiting list.

    You are correct that it is not unduly difficult to get a registration. FotoFest does issue guidelines about where artists should be in their career development, but as a matter of institutional philosophy, FotoFest is dedicated to it being an event that is open to all.

    Thanks again to all of you!

  4. Great article. I was there for session 3, too, as a reviewer. For me, it was filled with intense pleasure and new discoveries and never enough time to meet with everyone I wanted to meet, nor enough time to see all of the amazing exhibitions. We’re fortunate to team up with FotoFest Houston to run a very similar portfolio review session (3 days) in Paris each year, ending the day before Paris Photo begins (the world’s largest art fair dedicated to international photography), and during the Month of Photography in Paris: http://www.fotofest-paris.com. Serious mid-career photographers are encouraged to join us November 12-13-14, 2012. Cheers!